Do you have a unionized workforce? Alternatively, are you worried that your employees, might unionize? Why do many employers shiver or grimace at the thought of unions on their premises? Many employers simply fear losing control over a major segment of their employment and business practices. Unions may have the power to force employers to pay higher wages, delay work in the event of a strike, and generally damage company’s bottom line. Can your workers unionize (assuming they aren’t already unionized)? Can you stop them from forming a union? Can you refuse to recognize a union even after your workers have decided to form one? Let’s tackle these questions after the jump!
As always, let’s get a bit of background first. Why do unions exist in the first place? Once upon a time, there were no unions, and workers had none of the protections that many of us now take for granted. Workers were subjected to extremely hazardous conditions, and many were literally worked to death. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in March 1911 is an infamous example of why unions were needed. 146 immigrant workers, most of them women, died in that fire because they could not escape, due in large part to the factory owners having locked all the firedoors. The 40-hour workweek, restrictions on child labor and unemployment insurance are some reforms that resulted directly or indirectly from this tragedy. The National Labor Relations Act, (NLRA) signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt affords workers the right to unionize and controls how union workers and employers must interact with each other. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal government agency responsible for enforcing the NLRA.
If you own a small business, you may feel that the chances of unionization are slim to none. What if it happens anyway, though? Isn’t it better to know the governing law, both your rights and your employees’ rights, to avoid mistakes on your part? So, what if you find out that your employees want to unionize? You cannot interfere with the unionization process once it’s begun. That is an Unfair Labor Practice under Section 8 of the NLRA, and can result in you having to defend a charge before the NLRB. You cannot fire or threaten to fire any employees that vote for or join a union, nor can you reduce their benefits. You cannot threaten to close the company if employees unionize, question employees about their union support of treat union members differently than non-union members. You cannot refuse to negotiate in collective bargaining if requested, and you cannot behave badly during such negotiations . You cannot prohibit signs or symbols promoting a union, promise to give benefits as a bribe (for not unionizing), and you should not hold meetings about unions in a supervisor’s office. These are all Unfair Labor Practices and are forbidden by the NLRA. Oh, yes, and lockouts; they are a big no-no!
What happens to employers who either try to prevent unionization or refuse to recognize a union? NLRB v. Regis Corp is a prime example. Regis Corp., based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an operator of 10,000 hair salons and employer of approximately 57,000 workers found itself the subject of an NLRB charge in 2010. Regis forced its employees to sign pledges that they would not sign union cards and that they would be blacklisted if they did. Regis’ chief executive enforced the threat by speaking about it in a DVD that employees had to watch. When Regis fired an employee who protested a new policy, the employees ultimately organized a union, that Regis refused to recognize. The NLRB and Regis settled the Unfair Labor Practice charge in June 2011. Under the settlement, Regis agreed to remove from its files all of the contracts that it essentially forced employees to sign. In addition, Regis had to post notice that Regis employees have the right to union representation and this will be respected by Regis and that states what the company will do and won’t do as defined by the terms of a settlement. In general, the notice states that Regis will not try to prevent workers from unionizing or doing anything they are entitled to do under the NLRA and will not retaliate or threaten to retaliate against employees who do so.
Is there anything you can do when your employees try to unionize? You still have free speech rights under the First Amendment. How does that help you? While you cannot prevent unions from soliciting employees and you cannot punish employees who support a union, you can express your disapproval of labor unions to employees, and you can explain why. You can also tell your workers how unionization might affect the company, and the workers. You can hold the labor union responsible if it fails to keep its part of any agreement or if it violates laws governing union conduct. You also may ascertain that any union that comes to you for recognition truly represents the employees, with a minimum interest of about 30 percent. While the Obama Administration and others have attempted to change current law, you do not have to acknowledge a presentation of union cards. You may insist on a secret ballot election, in order to ensure that no one is being coerced to join the union.
Once a union is in place, you must negotiate a contract with it (a collective bargaining agreement) that governs terms and conditions of the union members’ employment. When the term of the contract expires (that too is something you will negotiate with the union) you must negotiate the new contract. While you cannot behave badly during negotiations, neither can the union. You have as much right to fair bargaining as the employees and the union.
What about unions? Are they restricted in any way? Just as employers cannot force employees to waive their rights to join a union (or to waive any other rights under the NLRA), the NLRA prohibits unions from forcing employees to support them. Just as employers cannot retaliate against employees for joining a union, the NLRA prohibits unions from retaliating against members who criticize the union or employees who refuse to join.
You may be thinking, “This is all well and good, but my employees are not unionized, so for now I have nothing to worry about, because the NLRA will not apply to me and my workers, right?” Nope, sorry, that is wrong. What’s that???? I hate to leave you hanging, but……We’ll start talking about that in the next post!!!
Disclaimer: This post’s contents are for informational purposes only, are not legal advice and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Always consult with competent local employment counsel on any issues discussed here.
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